Saturday 25 May 2019

Mary Kenny: 'Amid relentless march of secularism, Notre-Dame reminds us Christianity still burns bright in Europe'

'The catastrophic fire which enveloped Notre-Dame not only made world headlines, it was striking how many people in so many places were personally upset by the sight of this inferno.' Photo: Getty Images
'The catastrophic fire which enveloped Notre-Dame not only made world headlines, it was striking how many people in so many places were personally upset by the sight of this inferno.' Photo: Getty Images
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

A FRENCH scholar concludes that despite the Catholic faith of the EU's founding fathers, Christianity has continually lost ground to secularism. Yet, there are signs this Easter that the spiritual has not disappeared from society.

The catastrophic fire which enveloped Notre-Dame not only made world headlines, it was striking how many people in so many places were personally upset by the sight of this inferno.

It is the most visited tourist site in France and has, literally, an "iconic" status in the narrative of European culture.

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That is mainly how the cathedral is described: a great historic landmark, a symbol of heritage, a repository of art and architecture. What was once regarded as the realm of the sacred is now defined as a cultural artefact.

Earlier this year, the French scholar of religion Olivier Roy published a study examining the place of religion in European society, entitled 'Is Europe Christian?' ('L'Europe - est-elle chrétienne?'). After a long and detailed analysis, Dr Roy - whose work is published under the auspices of the European Research Council - concludes that it is not.

Although three of the four "founding fathers" of the European Union - Schuman, De Gaspari and Adenauer - were devout Catholics whose commitment to European reconciliation grew out of their faith, Europe today has shed its Christian formation.

In 2004, Pope Benedict XVI pleaded with the EU to include an allusion to its "Christian roots" in the European Constitution, but his plea was rebuffed.

Europe, says Dr Roy, is now a secular association of nations, and growing more so. At every point where Christian "values" have been opposed to secularism, secularism has won.

Taken overall, probably just under 10pc of EU citizens are now church-goers. Even where people "identify" as Christians, it's mostly nominal - 76pc of Danes call themselves Lutherans, yet only 25pc actually believe in Jesus Christ. Some 48pc of the British have "no religion", and although 59pc of the French describe themselves as Catholics, 73pc say that "religion plays no part in their lives".

The same patterns can be seen in Germany, Spain - and Ireland - where the "brutal fall" in religious adherence has gathered pace since the 1990s.

Historically, secularism has been expanding since the 18th century as the state gradually replaced the Church in social areas, such as welfare, hospitals, hospices, schools and charities.

However, the big break in "values" really occurred during the 1960s, according to Dr Roy.

Until the 1960s, secularists held similar values to Christians. The family was at the centre of civil society. The structures of civil marriage mirrored those of Church marriage, and divorce was only acceptable as a consequence of "matrimonial fault" - the secular version of sin.

Adultery was condemned, and laws against homosexual acts were enacted by the state: Germany, the Netherlands, Britain, Norway and Finland had stern anti-gay legislation under civil law.

Abortion was abhorred - even Communists were usually pro-natalist and deplored birth control as hedonism and "bourgeois decadence".

The pioneering French secularist Jules Ferry preached that "virtue" must be taught in secular education, and that "every father" should imbue his child with "forceful" ideas of right and wrong. These values were drawn on Christianity.

IN the 1960s, secular and religious culture began to diverge. Individualism, hedonism, personal liberty and "the validity of desire" were affirmed. Divorce on demand, abortion rights, gay rights were the new values, to which "the right to die", to transgender choice and to assisted conception by proxy, donor or IVF, were to be added.

All of these trends challenged Christian principles.

Catholicism sought to liberalise during Vatican II (1963-68). Paradoxically, this worsened the situation, according to Dr Roy. The liberalisation was described as "aggiornamento" - bringing up to date - but the effect was to remove the sense of the sacred, to "de-spiritualise" faith.

Seminaries began to empty and vocations fall. Subsequently, of course, the clerical scandals and revelations about the Magdalene orphanages in Ireland added to Church odium.

The seeds of the 1960s took time to come to fruition: and between 1995 and 2015, European Christianity everywhere lost ground.

The rise of Islam created, across Europe, increased hostility to religion, with bans on the veil and the minaret's call to prayer.

'Populism' sometimes claims Christianity as part of 'national identity' - as Viktor Orban does in Hungary - but Pope Francis has specifically spoken against populism (and in favour of immigration).

'Right-wing' politics in Europe don't particularly favour Christianity - Marine Le Pen endorses secularism, and 'capitalist liberals' like Emmanuel Macron favour market-based, Thatcherite values.

Christianity really only survives as something recognised as 'part of our culture' as in a museum.

Dr Roy's analysis is detailed and based on wide knowledge of this field. However, I believe that the conclusions he reaches are too pessimistic.

There are many signs that, even if society is secularised, there remains a hunger for the spiritual and the sacred.

Pilgrimages have had a huge revival over the past 30 years - the Road to Compostela is bustling with seekers.

The cathedrals of Europe have never had so many visitors as they have today.

Religious art is enjoying an astonishing boom - dozens of books about Leonardo da Vinci's perspectives on Christ have been published this year, the 500th anniversary of Leonardo's death.

Dr Roy might say that this is just regarding faith as 'culture', but as the Catholic Church understood when it commissioned great works of art, culture can be a portal to the spiritual and the divine.

As Notre-Dame was burning, President Macron, leader of an affirmatively secularist state, nonetheless referred to the great cathedral as "our soul", and its reconstruction as "our destiny".

Religion often fails its adherents, but faith is remarkably enduring.

Irish Independent

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